For 5⅓ innings Sunday, it looked like Cubs fans might have something really special to cheer for.
Jason Hammel had shut down the Brewers for the first 16 outs, with only a walk and a Starlin Castro error responsible for Milwaukee's two baserunners to that point. Carlos Gomez put an end to any hope for a no-hitter for Hammel by slicing a double down the left-field line just out of the reach of Mike Olt.
After a walk Hammel was able to get out of the inning, and wound up throwing seven innings (and one batter into the eighth). He allowed only Gomez's double and two other singles, leading the Cubs to a 4-0 victory over Milwaukee. The win snapped a four-game losing streak and was the Cubs' first shutout of the 2014 season.
Hammel's WHIP actually went up slightly after Sunday's game; the five baserunners allowed through walk or hit raised it from 0.687 to 0.692. That still tops all major-league starters; Hammel has been a revelation, similar to Scott Feldman a year ago. And similar to Feldman a year ago, Hammel will undoubtedly be wearing a different uniform at the end of July.
While Castro made that error on what should have been a routine play, he also provided the bulk of the offense with three hits, including a pair of home runs. That gives him four homers on the season and, with the month of April nearly complete, gives him a .292/.320/.448 line, much more similar to his Aprils in 2011 and 2012 than his bad start to last season. That's encouraging and gives the thought that Castro could recover his All-Star level of play from 2011 and 2012.
The Cubs also stole two bases, one by Nate Schierholtz and one by Ryan Kalish. Kalish, hitting leadoff for the first time this year, had two hits as did backup catcher John Baker. For Baker, they were his first two hits of the season.
Pedro Strop relieved Hammel after Hammel allowed a single to lead off the eighth, and got out of the inning easily, including inducing an inning-ending double play. With that leadoff single, Hammel became just the second Cubs starter to pitch in the eighth inning this year (Jeff Samardzija was the other, last Wednesday before the bullpen meltdown.
With a four-run lead, there was no save to blow! So, Hector Rondon was summoned to finish -- not "close" -- the game in the ninth inning. Rondon was awesome, striking out Jonathan Lucroy, Aramis Ramirez and Khris Davis on 97 mile-per-hour fastballs. If I had to guess, I'd guess Rondon will get the Cubs' next save opportunity, whenever that is. For once, the Cubs appear to have gotten themselves a useful Rule 5 pick.
Incidentally, credit to the four men who wore shirts saying "CHA," "MPI," "ON'S" and "PUB" in the first row behind the plate, getting nine innings' worth of free advertising for a Milwaukee-area bar -- likely worth every penny they paid for those tickets on a day when Miller Park was sold out.
The Cubs head to Cincinnati to begin a three-game series Monday evening with Samardzija facing Alfredo Simon. That is, of course, weather permitting -- which it might not, given this forecast.